Monday, November 30, 2020
Monday, November 16, 2020
“It Is What It Is”: The Politics of Despair
Often, certain phrases are filled with more meaning that we recognize. One such phrase is “It is what it is,’ which is often said when someone is confronting a political phenomenon, like corruption, that seems to be inevitable, even perhaps “natural.” “Such and such a politician is corrupt,” someone says. And then someone else, speaking as a realist, says: “It is what it is,’ which is usually and usually intended as conversation stopper, like “Life isn’t fair” or “So it goes.”
Mark Leibovich has written an interesting, enlightening book about Washington D.C. entitled This Town: Two Parties and A Funeral. In it, he posits that our two parties specialize in “organizing discontent.” That is, our elites play on our discontent, organizing it so as to maintain and enhance their power and authority. The sources of the discontent are not addressed or not addressed adequately while our reigning elites continue in power.
Leibovich writes about the use of phrase “It is what it is” as something of a cop-out, used by Washingtonians – politicians, lobbyists, journalists, the military, “the formers” - when they are confronted with their own peccadillos, their vanity, even their greed – or as they might euphemistically put it, “their skill at acquiring wealth and power.” This is enlightening – and seems all-too-true – but Leibovich’s description of what our elites do, “organizing discontent,” doesn’t quite reach deeply enough into the roots of the Washingtonians’ psyches.
It is not enough to say that our elites “organize discontent” because, in fact, they create, deliberately and with malice-aforethought, discontent. They also may be said to aim at creating not just discontent but also at creating despair. And they do this in order to maintain and fortify their power and authority.
How does this work? First, if our prevailing elites can cultivate despair in the rest of us, then the possibility of genuine change or reform looks chimerical, looks radical, looks like pie-in-the-sky dreaming. After all, “it is what it is” and “it” cannot be otherwise. And this mindset would apply to even relatively minor reforms, which can be made to look like significant changes when viewed through the realist lens of “It is what it is.” Hence, the very common phenomenon of some people being labeled “socialists” when in fact no genuine socialist would agree with that characterization.
Second, cultivating despair is well-served by what may be called “a politics of failure.” That is, those who accept the status quo may promise and even initiate significant changes, while knowing that when these initiatives fail – which the very same elites may facilitate – the status quo will be fortified or re-legitimated. Declaring a war on drugs or on poverty, for example, is one way to reinforce the status quo insofar as these wars are likely to be lost or never won. And those in power aren’t actually concerned with winning these wars because either way, won or never won, they win. Moreover, “endless” wars, which are actually “winless wars,” also reinforce the legitimacy of the status quo and the power and authority of the prevailing elites, which helps explain why such wars are fought over and over. “It is what it is.”
And this helps to explain why even long-tenured politicians may say over and over that “Washington is broken” without undermining their own power and authority. Because “it is what it is,” electing other politicians to replace the current ones won’t or can’t change the situation. And, of course, as everyone knows, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t know.” The system is broken, everyone agrees, but “it is what it is.”
Third, embracing “a politics of hope” is another way to cultivate a politics of despair insofar as that hope is not sustainable, as illustrated by the presidencies of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. To embrace “the audacity of hope” is a set up on the road to a politics of despair. Hope followed by repeated failures leads to hopelessness, that is, to political despair. As a result, people turn away from politics because they view politics as futile: “It is what it is.” Reigning elites will even go to some lengths to convince people of the futility of politics by embracing hope while reconciling themselves to failure. “It is what it is.”
Saturday, November 7, 2020
The US Political Order: Authoritarian?
Here are some quotes from Robert Parry’s Secrecy and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, which raise an interesting question about the recently concluded 2020 elections and the Trump presidency.
“Add the fear and the sense of victimization from the 9/11 attacks and a new political model suddenly lay open as a possibility for the United States. It would be a post-modern authoritarian system that would rely less on traditional repression of political opposition than on a sophisticated media to intimidate and marginalize dissidents.
“The new system would be the sum of the parts gradually arising out the ruins of Watergate…. this new system would rely on ridicule to make those who get in the way objects of derision, outcasts who very names draw eye-rolling chuckles and knee-slapping guffaws. Think of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore…’ [p. 359]
The question is this: What in the “evolution” and then the defeat of the Trump presidency conflicts with what Parry describes as “a post-modern authoritarian system that…. [relies]…. on a sophisticated media to intimidate and marginalize dissidents?”
Of course, just to be clear: To raise this question, it is not necessary to defend Trump or his presidency. It can be admitted that Trump and his presidency were indefensible. However, assessing Trump and assessing the political order as it now functions are two very different assessments. It could be that as bad as the Trump presidency was the American political order as described by Parry is just as bad, or even worse insofar as it is an order that not only trashes the likes of Trump but also trashes other dissidents. And if you need illustrations of such activity, just recall the names Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, while also recalling Obama’s attack on whistleblowers.
Thursday, November 5, 2020
2020 Election: The Game Is Over, The Table Is Set
The presidential election has been decided even all the votes have not been counted. Trump is out, as the numbers remaining aren’t in his favor. His lawsuits in different states will, I predict, go nowhere. The Republican mainstream has not and will not support his charges of electoral fraud. Even if he were to take a case to the Supreme Court, he would lose. It’s one thing for the Supremes to award the presidency to George Bush; it’s another thing entirely for the Supremes to award the presidency to Donald Trump. Trump’s “credentials,” such as they are, work against him, as does his behavior or misbehavior as president. On the other hand, George Bush’s “credentials” worked for him in 2000. He had been governor of Texas and, after all, he was the grandson of Prescott Bush and the son of George Herbert Walker Bush. This lineage counts for a lot in the District of Columbia and with its reigning elites. Just ask Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon.
And, as it stands now, the table is set for a return to “normalcy.” Given the closeness of the presidential election, the Democrats can and will argue that now is not the time for what they consider “radical” or even “leftish” measures. Such measures, it will be argued, could prove costly in four years when the next presidential election will occur. There will be no “pushing Biden to the left.” In fact, what is called the Democratic left will be forced to move to the right, to protect the party’s flank. Moreover, if as seems likely the Republicans hold their majority in the Senate, then the Democrats will argue that, even if they wanted to move to “the left,” they wouldn’t be able to get such measures past the Senate.
The “beauty” of the outcomes of what was to many “the most important election in their lifetimes” is that, for all important purposes, the nation is back to where it was prior to Trump’s election in 2016. One may even say that Trump’s presidency and his defeat in this election has served to fortify those political forces that were struggling to maintain their legitimacy after Obama’s bland and utterly forgettable presidency and after Bush’s post 9-11’s fiascos, meaning the invasion and occupation of Iraq, torture, Guantanamo, and the economic collapse of 2008. So if this has been the most important election in our lifetimes, it should not be said that that is the case because its outcomes put the nation on the road to a different and healthier politics.
Sunday, November 1, 2020
The Founders Gamble
Actually, Barr is wrong. The “Founders” didn’t gamble that virtue would prevail over the passions. They gambled that virtue wasn’t necessary or even desirable in their newly created “republic.” [Madison referred to religion as a source of tyranny in a letter to Jefferson and alluded to that in the Federalist Papers.] This was noticed at the time by the Anti-Federalists and commented on over and over. For example, if you read some of the Anti-Federalists descriptions of what life would be like in what we call the District of Columbia, they will sound remarkably like what life is like there now.
The “Founders'” project was to regulate the passions by setting them in opposition each other, or as Madison said in Federalist #51, self-interest must be set against self-interest because the only alternative was like relying on “angels” to govern. And of course that was a fantasy.
As Herbert J. Storing said in class once: He wouldn’t teach the Federalist Papers in high school because there was little there besides a reliance on self-interest, that is, passion. He also wrote [In “What the Anti-Federalists Were For”] that the Federalists had the “stronger” argument than the Anti-Federalists and, of course, the stronger and strongest arguments are such because they appeal to the passions, not to reason.
We seem to be harvesting the results of the “Founders” gamble.